Pittsburgh – In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Allegheny County on behalf of Angelica Davila, a US citizen who was born in Mexico and legally immigrated to this country at 2 years old.

After being stopped for a minor traffic violation, Davila was arrested and held overnight in the Allegheny County Jail based on the erroneous belief that she was in the country illegally after a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement search wrongfully notified the officer that she was to be held on detainer. 

The lawsuit is still ongoing against ICE, but as of November of last year, the county has agreed to pay Davila $25,000 in damages and has also agreed to stop honoring immigration detainers from federal authorities that a person be held in jail for up to 48 hours after he or she would otherwise be released. 

“The problem with these detainers is that they do not have to be supported by probable cause, they are not signed off on by a judge – and Allegheny County jail, before we reached the settlement, had a history of detaining people on these detainers long past even the 48 hours,” said Sara Rose, the staff attorney at the ACLU Pittsburgh office who is representing Davila.

According to Allegheny County Bureau of Corrections policy, the county jail will not detain a person solely on a detainer request or administrative warrant. It will, however, honor a warrant signed by a judge or magistrate. 

The policy also states that if an immigration detainer is requested for an inmate, records staff will update their system to indicate an agency hold for immigration for data collection and data sharing purposes only, but no actual hold will exist. Once that inmate is released, records staff will notify ICE via email. 

With this written policy in place, the county does not consider itself a so-called “sanctuary city.” 

“A sanctuary city is defined as one that adopts local policies designed to not prosecute people solely for being an illegal alien in the country in which they are currently living,” said Amie Downs, spokeswoman for the county. “Since no one in the executive branch does anything related to prosecution, it makes it difficult to define us as such.” 

Similarly, the City of Pittsburgh does not consider itself a sanctuary city but does honor ICE detainers. 

“The Pittsburgh police practice is to honor requests from ICE for detainers but refrain from working as immigration officers,” said Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. “The practice goes back to an internal police order first approved in 2014, which seeks to balance the rights of immigrant communities with federal efforts to prosecute crimes.” 

Yet, the city is marketing itself as a place where immigrants can find a new home.

Peduto has been applauded, along with other public officials like Congressman Mike Doyle, by the immigrant community after he helped the family of Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Pittsburgh, find legal counsel to avoid deportation. He was charged with illegal re-entry by a federal judge. 

Last summer, Peduto also launched his “Welcoming Pittsburgh Plan,” a community-driven initiative to build a more inclusive experience for Pittsburgh’s immigrant community. The goal is to grow the city by 20,000 new residents within 10 years.

“When we connect people of all cultures, we set the foundation for a cosmopolitan, prosperous city where residents learn from, welcome and celebrate their neighbors,” said Peduto when the plan was announced in June 2015. “The Welcoming Pittsburgh Plan is at the heart of that – it’s our roadmap to foster the potential already in our neighborhoods and to allow Pittsburghers of all backgrounds to come together to build the next chapter in Pittsburgh’s history.” 

But a bill currently before the state General Assembly could stifle some of the written and unwritten policies on this issue in the city and the county. 

HB 1185, sponsored by Rep. Martina White (R-Philadelphia) and amended by Sen. Rich Alloway (R-Franklin), would punish cities and municipalities that do not comply with ICE by withholding law enforcement grants from the state. It would also hold municipalities liable for damages done to persons or property when a detainer is in the custody of local law enforcement.

When asked how he thinks this legislation would impact the municipalities he represents, Allegheny County Councilman Ed Kress said he supports the spirit of the bill, but is concerned that if ICE makes a mistake like with the Davila case, his municipalities may be on the hook to pay for a potential lawsuit. 

“I think that if they are criminals and somehow dangerous, and the municipality is letting them walk the streets, then, yeah, I think their (funding) should be cut off,” he said. “But if there’s a lawsuit because ICE makes a mistake and we have to pay that because they don’t cover us, then it’s like a Catch-22.” 

And while Pittsburgh City Council has no laws on the books regarding anything related to “sanctuary cities” and doesn’t generally delve into immigration laws, Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak (District 4) doesn’t believe that the state should be telling municipalities what to do on the issue, either.

“It’s just extraordinarily frustrating that the state Legislature can’t get its own house together, can’t get the state together but seemingly keeps telling municipalities how to do our jobs when we are doing just fine on our own,” she stated. “They need to worry about cleaning up their own house and running their own operations and funding their own programs, rather than telling cities how to run their business.” 

The bill is currently waiting for final action by the state House. It is tentatively scheduled for a vote on Nov. 14. 

 Alanna Koll is Pittsburgh Bureau Chief  or The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.